2011 — Record-setting catch year in lower Columbia

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter



Records in 2011

Spring chinook

Jack catch of 5,542, tops old mark of 4,412 in 1971

Summer chinook

Angler trips of 75,818, tops 70,666 in 2010

Adult catch of 5,160, edges 4,924 in 2006

Jack catch of 2,430, crushes 1,217 in 2009


1,427 kept was almost 60 percent more than the old record of 900 sockeye kept in 2009

Summer steelhead

24,973 kept catch, blows away old mark of 18,324 in 2010

11,160 kept in August best for any month since 1969, tops 8,549 caught in July 2011

n 18,509 kept and released in August, old mark was 15,934 in July 2009

Fall chinook

147,343 angler trips, blow away old mark of 117,975 in 2009

28,269 adult kept, edges 26,195 in 2003

6,416 adults kept in August, easily tops 5,517 in 2009

1,578 adults kept in October, easily tops 983 in 2010

On Memorial Day weekend, the Columbia River was raging below Bonneville Dam. The river had topped 500,000 cubic feet per second for the first time since 1997. Visibility was about 24 inches.

The river would remain at more than a half-million cubic feet per second for three weeks. A massive snowpack was slowly making its way to the ocean.

Despite the high and dirty water, the most faithful in the Columbia River angling armada kept fishing.

Boaters would anchor in 10 feet of water or less, right along shore tight to the willows and cottonwoods. Bank anglers accessed the river at the beaches not inundated.

And, they caught salmon.

They caught a record number of adult summer chinook salmon. They caught a record number of jack summer chinook. They caught a record number of sockeye.

“The summer chinook catch was a record back to 1969, but I have a feeling catches were higher prior to the time of our creel program begin in 1969, when runs were bigger and there weren’t any closures,’’ said Jimmy Watts of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The sport-fishing legions went on to catch a record number of summer steelhead and fall chinook in the lower Columbia River in 2011.

“It was just a real successful year,’’ said Joe Hymer of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“The high water helped,’’ Hymer said. “It hindered the spring chinook fishing, but it helped with sockeye and summer steelhead. It was still fairly high and cool for the fall fish and that helped, too.’’

Watts agrees.

“I think the flows certainly played a role, especially in terms of bank angler productivity,’’ he said. “Bank anglers caught the majority of all the chinook, steelhead, and sockeye during May, June, and July. Bank anglers also caught most of the steelhead in August.

“The general theory is that the higher flows push the fish in closer to the beach, and that puts them in casting range.

“The second bonus is that in periods of really high runoff, the tidal influence is minimal. Bank anglers normally have to ‘fish the tides,’ but if the river is high enough, they can fish all day.’’

From mid-May through late September, there was good fishing some place along the lower Columbia, even for bank fishermen.

Chinook retention was open from May 15 through July 17. Normally, chinook fishing closes in mid-April and does not open until June 16.

“Steelhead catches were low during this time, but salmon fishing was pretty decent, especially for jacks,’’ Watts said.

The two weeks chinook retention was closed (mid-July until Aug. 1) steelhead fishing was really good.

“This lasted until the fall chinook showed up, and even though the states restricted the season below the Lewis, the area upstream of there stayed open through the entire year,’’ Watts said.

Anglers also are getting better at their craft, Hymer said.

With more summer chinook available, sportsmen are learning where and how to catch those fish with spinners and plugs such as Kwikfish, he said.

In 2011, it became clear that the dyed prawns used by summer steelhead anglers also will entice sockeye to bite, he said.

“The fall boat anglers at Bonneville also had their best chinook season ever, with lots of two-fish limits,’’ Watts said.

A huge sockeye run of 462,000 is forecast back to the Columbia in 2012.

Although they rarely bite on sport gear, some sockeye are caught incidentally by anglers targeting on early summer steelhead, especially from the beaches downstream of Longview.

“Anglers should have a good shot at breaking the sockeye record again in 2012,’’ Watts said.

Fishermen also will have record run of 91,200 summer chinook to chase if pre-season forecasts are correct.

“Guys are starting to figure a lot of things out,’’ Hymer said.